With a COVID-induced delay in Worldcon, Hugo Award voting won’t happen until November this year, but it’s not too early to start sorting through the finalists. Over the next six months, I’ll be posting a series of 2021 Hugo analyses. The extra reading time means that I should be able to cast informed votes in six or seven categories, but I certainly didn’t need the extra time for the Hugo Award for Best Short Story, where I’d already read five of the six finalists. And it’s a strong crop of finalists this year, with two of the six on my nominating ballot and another pair having been singled out as some of my favorites in my monthly recaps.
Bottom Half of the Ballot
While the top of my ballot was full of difficult choices, the bottom half stratified pretty easy, with one story that didn’t work, one solid offering, and another that was very good, albeit a cut below my top three.
Seventh Place: Badass Moms in the Zombie Apocalypse by Rae Carson.
I figured this was a slam dunk for the finals, with a Nebula Award nomination and tons of social media hype. And it’s easy to see why, with its ostentatious feminist packaging and a reveling in the messy parts of womanhood. And having loved that scene in A Quiet Place, I was pretty intrigued by a story centered on giving birth in the middle of a horror story. But an intriguing premise was let down by the execution.
Some of my complaints were mere personal preference. I prefer tense and atmospheric to reveling in blood and gore, and while “Badass Moms in the Zombie Apocalypse” being the latter may put it outside my wheelhouse, it doesn’t make it a bad story. Instead, the major failure here comes in the thematic inconsistency.
From the title, to the premise, to the “our bodies, our choice” line, “Badass Moms in the Zombie Apocalypse” sold itself as unapologetically and unsubtly feminist. And so, when I hit the part about the main character actively deceiving an unnamed trader so that he would be willing to repeatedly have sex with her, I had to read again to make sure I was interpreting correctly. Now “deceit for the purpose of seduction” is a pretty broad spectrum, ranging from the merely skeevy (like lying about height on a dating profile) to pretty much just rape (like impersonating the victim’s significant other), and this instance certainly doesn’t fall at the latter edge. But the author doesn’t seem to realize that her character’s actions are on this spectrum at all–said seduction is described as hard, but only because the sex was unpleasant, not because our heroine had any moral qualms. In fact, the tone of the narrative suggests that this seduction is one of the things that makes our heroine such a badass.
It’s a decidedly unfeminist scene, coupled with a total lack of self-awareness about the problems it introduces, undercutting what was meant to be a powerful story about women pushing through the most difficult of circumstances. And so, while the plot may not have brought the tension I’d hoped for, it’s the thematic failures that brings me to rank this story below No Award.
Sixth Place: No Award.
Fifth Place: The Mermaid Astronaut by Yoon Ha Lee.
“The Mermaid Astronaut” offers a creative take on a Little Mermaid-style plot, where instead of being infatuated with a human prince, our heroine is enamored with the stars and dreams of exploring other worlds. Lee really captures the fairy tale atmosphere, and does so while avoiding the unhealthy interpersonal dynamics that accompany so many fairy tales. Essarala, the titular mermaid, is open with her family about her dreams, and her sister brings nothing but enthusiastic support. Even the witch, though she doesn’t explain every consequence up front, could hardly be accused of taking advantage of Essarala’s dreams.
But despite the fairy tale atmosphere and the wholesome relationships, “The Mermaid Astronaut” falls a hair short in its ending. The story drives fairly clearly toward a bittersweet resolution, but when it comes, Essarala accepts it so easily that the emotional weight of the bitterness disappears almost entirely. This doesn’t ruin the story, and its strengths are enough for me to understand its place among the finalists. But with a field this strong, they’re not enough for more than fifth on my ballot.
Fourth Place: Metal Like Blood in the Dark by T. Kingfisher.
“Metal Like Blood in the Dark” is an AI story, but not of the recently-popular vintage that draws AIs with familiar human personalities and interests. Rather, Kingfisher leans into the tabula rasa, drawing a pair of guileless robots that are completely unprepared for the wider world.
This is another story that feels a lot like a fairy tale, and Kingfisher’s fluid prose immediately grabs the reader’s attention, which she then sustains with an intriguing plot that sees the AI pair, Brother and Sister, leave their isolated home and explore the complicated and often hostile world outside. This change in environment forces the pair to reconsider what they know about truth and communication, and the ensuing plunge into the mind of an AI as it learns about dishonesty is fascinating—the absolute peak in a short story full of high points.
In a weaker field, I would’ve been happy to include this near the top of my ballot, but while I found it engaging throughout and easy to recommend, it didn’t stick with me to quite the degree of some of the others, keeping it just outside my top three.
Top Half of the Ballot
While the bottom three stories stratified nicely enough, I loved each one of my top three. Determining an ordering took a lot of thought and a bit of rereading. But while I’d be happy to see wins from any of the three, I did ultimately see enough separation to confidently play favorites.
Third Place: Little Free Library by Naomi Kritzer.
More than anything, this story demonstrates the sharp contrast between this year’s and last year’s crop of finalists. Every finalist last year either featured experimental formats or dealt with dark, heavy themes. This year, there’s been more recognition of works that don’t necessarily push boundaries but deliver excellent stories all the same. And there’s no better example than “Little Free Library.” It’s a lovely blend of nostalgia and portal fantasy, with a little free library transporting classic fantasy novels and other small objects between worlds.
“Little Free Library” doesn’t push boundaries or subvert tropes, but it perfectly captures the magic of portal fantasy, expertly drawing the reader into the lead’s gradual discovery of the fantastic. And while the feeling of magic may not be anything new, it’s not at all easy to create, and seeing it shine through so strongly vaults “Little Free Library” into my top three, with a touching ending sealing the deal. Ultimately, I found two other stories that I liked just a little bit better, but Kritzer’s masterful portal fantasy was enough to make me think twice about the top of my ballot, and I’d be happy to see it win.
Second place: A Guide for Working Breeds by Vina Jie-Min Prasad
“A Guide for Working Breeds” is another story that may not break new ground but flawlessly accomplishes what it sets out to do. I suppose the chat log structure falls under the umbrella of experimental formats, but both it and the benevolent/relatable AI fall firmly within current science fiction trends. But it’s just done so well—it’s funny, it’s touching, it takes a couple satisfying shots at unethical business practices—and is an absolute joy to read.
I wondered whether this story might not have much staying power, but it had me laughing just as much on reread as I did the first time. And, as someone who’s usually pretty unmoved by cute pet pictures, I can safely say that my enjoyment doesn’t rest merely on it hitting the popular tropes. “A Guide for Working Breeds” was a breath of fresh air in the middle of a global pandemic, and it’s well worthy of recognition among the best of 2020 works.
First Place: Open House on Haunted Hill by John Wiswell
If we needed a heartwarming story in 2020, it’s hard to find one better than “Open House on Haunted Hill.” It has the same undercurrent of optimism that stood out in “A Guide for Working Breeds,” but with deeper reckoning into the struggles that weigh so heavily, from the supernatural (a haunted house that just wants a resident) to the mundane (a widower raising a young daughter alone).
Not only does it pack an emotional punch, “Open House on Haunted Hill” delivers a fresh subversion of horror tropes, taking the bones of the horrific and finding a hopeful story to tell. Between the creativity, the emotional punch, and even the humor, Wiswell offers a delightful story that checks every box. There are other high-quality stories on the ballot, and I’d love to see them get their recognition, but ultimately, I can’t cast my vote for anything other than “Open House on Haunted Hill.”